Demystifying games – and why we all need to broaden our horizons

There’s a brilliant piece by Charlie Brooker on videogames, where he compares the process of learning their intricacies to studying a foreign language.

“Veteran players have years of experience. We’re schooled in the way games work. It’s as if we have learned a new man-made language, like Esperanto. And games are the equivalent of Esperanto-language movies – except they’re better than movies. They’re engrossing and exciting, playful and challenging, constantly evolving, constantly surprising. They’re interactive and, thanks to the rise of modern multiplayer, infinitely more social than mere television. But because they’re in Esperanto, it’s hard for non-speakers to appreciate them.”

It’s an unusual analogy, but it’s an entirely accurate one. Non-gamers can seem completely befuddled by traditional videogames. Yet stick them in front of something like Wii Sports or Brain Training, and they’ve got a much better idea of what to do. Little wonder that Nintendo has been so successful this generation, when it’s really the only format-holder to successfully tap into this new audience. Microsoft and Sony have both tried, and games like Flower and Peggle hold appeal both to gaming enthusiasts and inexperienced players. Yet most titles aimed at a casual or non-gamer audience are treated with derision by gamers and critics alike.

If we want our medium to grow, this sort of thing has to stop. Fair enough if you want to deride lowest-common-denominator shovelware, but even casual games of the highest quality are met with sneers from the majority of the gaming populace. Not even the extraordinary PopCap – arguably the only company outside Nintendo to really understand how to attract an expanded audience without alienating core players – has escaped the ire of the forums. And meanwhile, gaming critics post blog pieces, tweets and news stories savaging videogame coverage in mainstream publications – understandable when it’s poorly researched or badly-written, but often it’s just because it attempts to convey a game’s qualities in broader terms than would be common in a specialist publication.

All of this makes gamers and games journalists look increasingly narrow-minded. Innovative new titles often go ignored in favour of celebrating the latest FPS or third-person shooter. Games like Darksiders and Army of Two: The 40th Day which offer nothing new get pages and pages of coverage, while lower-budget but far worthier titles are swept under the carpet. Often this can be simply down to the format these games appear on – it’s little wonder third-party DS and Wii games suffer poor sales when they arrive with little to no fanfare because websites and magazines are busy fawning over the latest HD blast-em-up.

It often seems that gamers are reluctant to shop around for newer experiences, too. Perhaps this is partly thanks to the prohibitive cost of games – at £35 or more a pop, it’s little wonder most people are content to play it safe. Yet given the opportunity to pick up something innovative on one of the digital services, many will still find an excuse not to buy. The digital download model hasn’t taken off nearly as quickly as analysts predicted, because sales figures simply don’t support the notion that it’s the way forward. Take 2 recently bemoaned lower-than-expected sales of GTA IV’s downloadable content – if even Rockstar’s perennially-popular series can’t kickstart the digital revolution, what can?

Gamers’ purchasing habits are increasingly causing a vicious circle. With the cost of developing games constantly rising, publishers opt to stick with the tried-and-tested simply because gamers seem to respond. We all need to be a little more adventurous – and magazines and websites need to broaden their horizons just as much as players do. That said, publications’ hands are often tied by the needs of their readers; Games TM magazine once put Capcom’s beautiful Okami on the cover and sales plummeted. We’re a curiously insular lot.

But our ignorance of niche titles is nothing compared to the treatment of any games not aimed directly at a so-called hardcore audience. Yesterday I played a fairly throwaway bit of fluff from Nintendo called FlingSmash, a game where you bat a spherical hero towards obstacles and power-ups using the Wii MotionPlus to fine-tune your aim. You simply have to swing the controller to play, and it’s a game that even the most inexperienced of gamers could pick up very quickly. Yet you can almost predict the reviews and forum responses before they arrive. Whether FlingSmash turns out to be any good or not remains to be seen – I got barely half-an-hour with the game, and it wasn’t enough to effectively gauge its quality – but that’s by the by. This will likely be dismissed by most before they’ve had chance to play it. It’s too colourful, it’s too simple, it’s not ‘adult’ enough…

This doesn’t really happen with films or books, at least not to the same degree. Do children’s books get roundly criticised for not appealing to adults? Do films not in the English language get marked down because they “won’t appeal to everyone”? No. Yet as a matter of routine, any game containing primary colours or a simplistic control scheme will be deemed to offer little or nothing to the modern gamer.

There are some sweeping generalisations here, of that I’m fully aware. There are definite exceptions to these rules. But it’s hard to deny that this kind of thing is going on, because it is.

Perhaps more important, however, than the need to be broader-minded about games, is to actively encourage non-gamers or less experienced players to share in our joy of playing. God knows, most of us have tried, often with frustrating results, as Brooker’s piece points out:

“You’re in crouch mode,” you sigh, as their character waddles comically up the street. “Take it out of crouch mode.” Instead they throw a grenade at their own feet, killing themselves and several bystanders. They moan that it’s too hard. You force them to try again. Their character respawns. They run against a nearby door and jab at the buttons. “You can’t open that door,” you offer helpfully. “Why not?” they ask, “I opened another one a minute ago.” “That one’s just scenery,” you sigh. “How do you know?” they say, jabbing all the buttons again. “It just is. Stop it.” “Maybe it’ll open in a moment,” they suggest, jabbing. “It won’t.”

We’ve all been there. But then expecting a non-gamer to instantly understand GTA and how to control it is sheer folly. In fairness to Brooker, he mentions several simpler, easier-to-grasp titles which gamers should encourage others to play. If every gamer started doing that, or at least attempted to, they’d help demystify games to those who think they’re nothing more than a frivolous waste of time. (It’s kind of true, but that’s an argument for another time.)

We’re not helped by the reluctance of the mainstream press to accept games as a medium of any significant import. There are signs that things are changing, if ever so slightly. The Guardian and Telegraph’s online coverage is exemplary – but then the paper space alloted to games is minimal, and non-gamers are unlikely to ever happen across that particular section of the website. The Observer’s new games page is a step in the right direction, although the amount of coverage still compares poorly to that of books and cinema, even despite the regularity of headlines proclaiming games to be ‘bigger than Hollywood’. Visionary film-makers and authors are interviewed and profiled. Miyamoto and Will Wright can win BAFTA fellowships, but where’s the mainstream coverage of their achievements? The British press will loudly champion home-grown success in television and film – but not for a gaming innovator like Peter Molyneux.

The best games are incredible fusions of art and technology; this is a medium quite unlike any other, capable of unique and immersive experiences. We should all consider it our duty as gamers to educate those less aware about their brilliance. Broaden your minds, embrace the new, accept non-games and casual titles as part of the new games culture. Enthuse and inform. Do your bit.

Games – and the people who make them – deserve our time and effort.

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4 comments

  1. What makes the situation worse is that you’ve written this marvellous think piece on your blog to no comments from the gaming consensus. Gaming needs more people like Brooker and writers such as yourself to stand up tall and announce these opinions, get people to listen.

    My concern is that videogames are too often aimed at children and teenagers that want their gaming fix, not by controlling petals as they dance on teh wind, but by “teabagging” n00bs on Halo or Modern Warfare. Movies and books have been around long enough to pull in more intelligent audiences and are experienced by a vast volume of people. While all our industry has is trolls and fan boys, it will never break out into the “proper” mainstream.

    In regards to more “casual” games, there is no one to blame but the developers/publishers themselves. You mention PopCap who are behind the successful Bejeweled, which is one of the most popular games on Facebook. Many times now have I said to friends and family that are obsessed with playing it, that they can buy more titles such as Zuma, Peggle and of course, PvZ. But PopCap don’t make this apparent enough, if they pushed their other games then they may see an increase in audience.

    I’m not sure if I’ve even written this as an intelligent reply or more of a ramble based on your post, either way it was great to read.

  2. Thanks for your kind comments, Daniel. Maybe I should look for an outlet for an expanded version of this. Would be nice to get a bigger audience for it, that’s for sure.

  3. A great post, and one that I really enjoyed reading. I tend to think that the real problem facing the gaming industry is one of snobbery – gaming is still a relatively young medium in search of its individual voice (see its reliance on the vocabulary of cinema) and whose fans are passionately resistant to intrusion by the ‘casual crowd.’

    In a perfect world, the ultimate benchmark would be one of quality, whereby risky and innovative developers who take the time and effort to produce substantial and polished fare are rewarded for raising their heads above the parapet. Sony has backed Heavy Rain and my own opinion of it (http://tinyurl.com/yl99zd6 (please forgive the shameless link)) is almost uniformly positive. It’s deeply entrenched in cinema, but makes a mark with a compelling, almost physical connection to the on-screen action. It’s by no means perfect, but is certainly a step in the right direction and a great argument for publishers to back more innovative titles.

    All that remains is for gamers to vote with their wallets, to eschew yearly updates and lazy licences and to reverse the notion that the safe bet is equivalent to the profitable investment. We can start that process with an intelligent discussion such as the one you present, rather that bicker about which platform is superior.

    • Thanks, Ian. I agree with you almost completely, and you’re right about Heavy Rain – it isn’t perfect, but it deserves to be celebrated for its innovations.


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